By David Karp
You may know him from late night television, where he has been tromboning in the band with Conan O’Brien for 25 years under that signature Panama hat.
You may know him from his band LaBamba and The Hubcaps, formed here in the Garden State in the 80’s.
You even may have seen him touring with Little Steven or Diana Ross.
But if somehow you’ve missed Richie “LaBamba” Rosenberg over the years, your chance for redemption comes at 4 pm this Saturday, Aug. 18, 2018. Rosenberg will be rocking the eighth annual Morristown Jazz and Blues Festival, a free day of music that will fill the Morristown Green from noon to 10 pm.
It should be quite a show. How could it not be, with a roster that includes someone with such an amazing musical journey as Rosenberg?
Sure, he has made his home in beautiful Calabasas, among palm trees, hills and California sun, for the past nine years. But his roots are here on the East Coast. The story begins in northeast Philadelphia, where a junior high school band director, Leroy Evans, approached him with a trombone.
“He basically said to me: ‘I have a lot of trombones that are graduating this year and, looking ahead, why don’t you take this home and see what you can do with it?’ I took it home over the summer.”
Rosenberg’s stepfather helped fuel his musical fire.
“He enjoyed going out with his buddies to jazz clubs. So he gave me a lot of insight, you know? He had a little jazz collection of records. He said, ‘You know you gotta listen to this guy: J.J. Johnson.’ And I went out to 3rd Street Records and spent all my money on every J.J. album I could get.”
His love of music is something he shares with his five kids at home. “Not just jazz, but everything. I have three sons that play drums!”
Rosenberg’s connection with Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes is well known. He arrived in Asbury Park in 1976, just missing the riots. He found himself immersed in a scene that would make rock and roll history, with the likes of Southside Johnny, Little Steven and the Boss himself, Bruce Springsteen.
Of course, Rosenberg has toured all over as well, with people such as Diana Ross and Little Steven. (He toured with Little Steven to promote his album Men Without Women, which contains the song Inside of Me — my first exposure to Steven when it played on The Sopranos way back when).
A few months back, Little Steven brought his Disciples of Soul to Morristown’s Mayo Performing Arts Center for his Soulfire tour.
“We went to his show and we had some nice seats towards the back of the theater. Not too obvious,” Rosenberg said.
Being a Jersey Shore legend has its upsides.
“One of the people who worked for Steven was walking up the aisle and he stops and says to me ‘Hey, what are you guys doing sitting here?’ I said, ‘These are the seats we got,’ and he says ‘No no no no no, you gotta come up front,’ and took us twelve rows from the stage.”
In between all his musical ventures, Rosenberg strives for a normal day-to-day life.
“I try to be a dad,” he says with pride, and a laugh. “And all of us have our little things to do, like I have some recording stuff, some arranging, orchestrating stuff. I really enjoy orchestrating for my big band. It’s called LaBamba’s Big Band.”
You can hear that band on one of the coolest tribute albums to date, 2008’s Grapefruit Moon: The Songs of Tom Waits, along with Southside Johnny. Rosenberg orchestrated the album.
Video: LaBamba & The Hubcaps
LaBamba and the Hubcaps got their start at a now-famous Asbury Park venue.
“I think there was an open mic at the Stone Pony, so we were asked if we wanted to come in there and put something together,” Rosenberg recounted.
“We started having rehearsals at Allaire Airport . There was a room you could practice in. It was a room that was set up like a music studio.”
Amused by the Jewish kid with the Spanish mustache, Springsteen christened Rosenberg as LaBamba.
And the name The Hubcaps? “The Hubcaps came from a deejay at the Stone Pony named Lee Mrowicki. Nothing of my own idea,” Rosenberg said.
No matter who you credit with the moniker, there is no denying that the band made a name for itself. The crowd will be reminded how on Saturday, Rosenberg promises.
“We’ve got most of the Hubcap classic set, what people always ask for. Couple of surprises, couple of things that, you know, a lot of people enjoy and we enjoy doing it,” Rosenberg said.
He’s hoping Brian Pastor, his high school trombone teacher and lead trombonist on Grapefruit Moon, is in the audience.
If LaBamba’s people spy him sitting near the back, we’re betting they’ll upgrade him to a seat up front.
You can have front-row seats, too– just bring your own lawn chair or blanket. MorristownGreen.com is a proud sponsor of the 2018 Morristown Jazz & Blues Festival. It’s free, it’s rain or shine, and it boasts an all-star lineup, starting at noon with the U.S. Air Force Rhythm in Blue ensemble. At 2 pm, Canadian singer/trumpeter Bria Skonberg returns for her second festival here. LaBamba and the Hubcaps follow at 4 pm. The Bernard Allison Group takes the stage at 6 pm, and Chicago-based guitarist Davy Knowles headlines at 8 pm.